A woman with multiple sclerosis is staging a High Court challenge to clarify the law on assisted suicide.

Care Not Killing welcomes a full airing of the arguments, but warns that any loosening of the law to make assisted suicide easier would put vulnerable people at risk and make them susceptible to exploitation and abuse - a view upheld by the House of Lords vote on the Joffe Bill in 2006.

Dignity in Dying campaigner Debbie Purdy has progressive multiple sclerosis. She may at some stage wish to receive assisted suicide and wants her husband Omar to be immune from prosecution in the UK should he accompany her to Dignitas, the Swiss assisted suicide clinic. Her campaign bears striking similarities to that of the late Diane Pretty.

According to Dignity in Dying, formerly known as the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, Debbie's concerns are centred around quality of life and dignity issues:

What worries me the most about my disease is that it is degenerative...I don't want to be forced to make a decision about the end of my life before I am ready to stop enjoying it. I want to wait until the last minute to decide if I can bear the pain and indignity I am facing.

Speaking in reaction to the news of the hearing, Care Not Killing's campaign director Dr Saunders said:

We need to be very clear on what has been agreed here. The High Court Judges have simply granted permission for Debbie Purdy to have a full hearing in court but have made it very clear that they are not giving her any grounds for optimism that her arguments will succeed.

We welcome this opportunity to revisit the arguments and are confident that the court will find that, in order to protect vulnerable people from exploitation, the current law should be upheld.

Assisting in another's suicide is a criminal offence which carries a sentence of up to 14 years imprisonment. The law is very clear on this matter and should not be changed. Changing it to allow assisted suicide would place vulnerable people - the sick, elderly, depressed and disabled - under pressure, whether real or imagined, to request early death. Vulnerable people often feel that they constitute a financial or emotional burden to others and the so-called 'right to die' can so easily become the duty to die. Once a person has been 'helped to die' it is often very difficult to know whether there has been subtle coercion involved from someone who has an interest in a person's death.

Requests like this are thankfully extremely rare and hard cases make bad law. We must not legislate for exceptions and the House of Lords for this reason in 2006 quite rightly rejected Lord Joffe's assisted dying bill. There are over 70,000 people in Britain with multiple sclerosis at present and only a very small number ever request assisted suicide. These requests are virtually never persistent if patients' physical, emotional and spiritual needs are properly addressed. Our key priority must therefore be to make the very best palliative care more widely accessible and to get rid of the postcode lottery of care that currently exists in Britain.

We are concerned about Mrs Purdy's expressed fear of choking to death or experiencing excruciating pain because with good palliative care these fears are quite groundless. The public is being misled over this. There have been great advances in the management of multiple sclerosis which have benefited patients and now mean that many with the disease live an almost normal lifespan. Mrs Purdy has had MS for 13 years already and may have many more years still to live. It is also not at all clear, given the type of illness she has, that she would ever need assistance to end her life, should she be determined to do so. This case has to be seen therefore in the wider context of an ongoing campaign by Dignity in Dying, formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, to change the law.

The key issue here remains whether the law should be changed for the very small number of people who press for assisted suicide. Our view is that in order to protect others from exploitation it should not be.

Links: Assisted suicide court review due - news.bbc.co.uk